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storyteller, narrative strategist, my dog's best friend

One’s Weak at the Cave at Jack’s Cove

Cave at Jacks Cove

By Timothy Gillis

Day 1. Six a.m. and no one’s up. I’m making coffee and reading the newspaper and having a cigarette. The cave at Jack’s Cove is filled with water now. The tide is high and I’m moving on. I wait for the recession and go spelunking with my mom and middle sister, down the green hill behind our new house, across the brown and white and once green fields, onto the path past the stonewalling wooden gate, through the mud down the trail until we reach the round-rocked beach buffeted on both sides by craggy cliffs, and then down to the left where I’m told at low tide the cave emerges, accessible by the seaside. We go the three of us and of course the dog, Wyatt. Slip on seaweed, go slow with coffee thermos, cups of black dark roast, the moon rising on the horizon even though it is midday, and into the cave at Jack’s cove. What will happen?

Day 2. Up early for coffee and cigarette and to run the washing machine, locate my new pen, stolen like Biff Loman in his boss’s office. Now seated in front of the early morning soccer, I roll another smoke, my son still stirring in the bed upstairs. The ocean must be the east, highlights from midweek, and the pen warms to the task, something written before the game gets me back to morning. A short story called “Boxing Day with Heart Rocks.” My heart rocks at Hard Rock. Rocky dog in the cave at Jack’s Cove, around the bend from Sobs’ Corner. The horizon is pink where it meets the water, then lightening as it rises so blue at the shore, deeper and darker until it meets pink orange yellow and into the light sky softer yet same color as the sea seemingly completes the circle, but doesn’t.

Day 3. Sobs’ Corner so called because so many drivers wound up on its rocky wall like whales beached. Boys drive the fast distracted course to tragic adulthood, slowed by nothing but their mothers’ anxiety. Then sped up again by the same beers, same talk of girls, some smoke and the radio blaring songs so familiar. Tackled head-on another car coming so when compensation meets surprise the boys—and the radio now the cell phone one hand driver one-hand texting—and the other car’s driver (no matter the age or experience going slow even to avoid an accident and) overcompensation, sends them back, the carload crashes into the wall at Sobs’ Corner. You get the name.

Day 4. That first time, too, you understand the needle in the year, the sting upon the bee, the first girl’s rejection, the song too long at the dance hall, the wall too close or so far away. The next line rises again to meet the pen. The page comes up and greets the ink, and the resulting composition yellows with age and her. Most times writing about the next one when the pen falls to paper, weak with the coffee’s last gurgle, cream warming on the counter, sugar sitting waiting, spinning in the bowl. The day’s sunset, slowly carnivorously turning today’s plans for toast and bacon and eggs into toast and eggs anyway or at least toast.

Day 5. The game. Everyone else is tuning in tomorrow for the big game, but for me and my ilk: it’s the world version of football, not the American one that they all crave. I make coffee but not a pot, just a single serving Italian roaster. Roll a French cigarette. I add the U to words like colour and favour so sights and assists turn European, give me a foreign name, soothe my stomach with stuff from away. The French cigarette is a spliff, a bozo, with skunk honey weed and Dunhill tobacco. The path out back leads to an American beach, but the rounded rocks on its shore roll under my weight in kilograms not pounds. The sea salt’s come from overseas, the sand’s shifted over there. I sit and sip and smoke and slide from my pocket an Arden classic—Much Ado About Nothing—and open to Act I. What of the rising tide? What for the distant shore? To who the page lifts and turns? And wherefore? The dog sniffs someone else’s dog, the mess he left behind. The cave at low tide, cliff at high, opens and fills out on my left, a No Trespassing sign on the rocks on my right. Richard Brautigan’s 4/17th of a haiku. The coffee cools as the pen’s ink warms.

Day 6. Vert, I go, in green ink. Sit, start from dreams, grab nightstand notebook and pen and write as the sunrise pours yellow light upon the page. The ink is almost gone, victim of a thousand late nights, a dozen false dawns. The temporary job is done. The part-time girlfriend shortly after it. But evening’s images still flicker their Chinese New Year torture, after all the traditional holidays are shut, that last one late one hosted by her friends, who gather and discuss the holidays and work and all the world they’ll see in all the in-betweens. Meanwhile, I rise over the recent sketches. The coffee spurts and gurgles and perks. The foggy cigarette rolls itself, the ocean just woke up while I was relieving, and the dew is rolling back into the woods. His prayer rug matted with his and his father’s knees, frayed at each end – by Judaism on the left, Christianity on the right, rolled now into his mind’s spiritual corner, a naturalist’s wonder. The dog drops his ball, no bounce, and looks for someone to throw it. His master’s gone. “The old dog barks backwards,” the Frosty poet opined, slowed the line with D’s and B’s, so the reader (like the dog) rhymes behind, regrets. I refill my thermos cup without getting up. The poem’s next line fuels the mind. “I can remember when he was a pup.”

Day 7. Red-Letter Day and writing in red ink now. The sun rises angry this morning, up over restless seas and a rocky path walk to its shore. The dog limps behind me, still sleepy and tottering like the young cow from another cold poem. Wyatt still hasn’t eaten his breakfast, the leftovers from last night, and seems to sense the news I’ll get later, that my sister’s dog has died a surprise death, discovered by her daughter, such a sensitive, animal-loving soul. Wyatt’s cousin had lost his job, bringing joy and dancing days to his human mother, sister, brother, and all the dogs gone by. Man’s best friend dies too, it seems, leaving the long walk to the morning shore so much colder and alone. The moon sits opposite, hesitant to go down on the night and its still unbegotten news. The ducks float on by, cackling in the wind and riding today’s crest, then falling on its other side, the coolness like the other side of last night’s pillow, feathers scrunched from last night’s head in its unmade bed. I can hear my mother puzzling away in the other room, the edges of a thousand-piece picture of an image from our younger European days. She persists, puts pieces together although she knows one is missing. I look over the leftover pieces and perceive the shortfall, and then the floor and consider my dog, dying one day too but not for now. For now, just secretly digesting puzzle pieces.

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The old, faded photograph

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By Timothy Gillis

The old faded photograph – I rip it out of its frame, a small one she gifted me. I fold the photo in half, creating an unsmoothable crease between us. It’s a photo her friend took as she passed us by. We are facing each other in folding seats where the bench in front of the Maine College of Art used to be before the school had it moved when the sideway was repaired, sliding the bench down two notches to in front of the public cable television station. Capitalism and communism arm-in-arm, or at least hesitant bedfellows. The surprise and mutually beneficial union moved the smokers from in front of MECA’s façade, but here we sit smoking anyway.

I am wearing a blue blazer over a white collared shirt with medium blue squares, blue jeans, and loafers with no socks. The shoes were my father’s. I took to wearing them after he died so I could walk in his shoes, you know, literally. I am smoking a cigarette in my left hand; it’s burned about halfway down. On my left wedding ring finger, I wear my dad’s family ring. Heavy. Gold. Destined for my older son, one day, when his fingers are big enough.

She was wearing… well, she could have worn anything she wanted. She is holding my umbrella over her head, wary of the rain and its effects on her auburn curls, graying but deterred by a home coloring hair kit. I am mid-ramble, smiling, sallow-cheeked. She looks on with what at first appears to be a smile but is, in fact, upon closer inspection, a grimace – half pained wince; half jeer; with a dollop of readiness to countermand, just for good measure.

In the background, a bike is locked up at the bike rack. Security and order. A newspaper stand gives away free copies of itself. It’s not the newspaper for which I write. Proximate is a circular trashcan, a more fitting receptacle for my own words.

And now, I try to conjure in letters what she was back then and where she is now. In the photograph, it was raining. Real or figurative moisture later damaged her half of the picture. Was it me who left it out in the Maine Spring? Did I cause her to wither and fade? Or did she fade from me of her own accord? I cannot seem to find the right letters to force out an answer. Maybe I will never know. Maybe I am not supposed to. Or maybe the search will produce answers to other questions I would have been better all along asking. I fold the photo back in half and place it in my left breast pocket. I head outside for a cigarette, a quick puff, and the lightning that smoking inhales.

Texas Chainsaw Chili Contest

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Leatherface signs books, serves chili at Coast City Comicon

By Timothy Gillis

Gunnar Hansen, the actor who played Leatherface in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” will be appearing at this year’s Coast City Comicon, to sign autographs and discuss his new book. The comic book convention is at the DoubleTree in South Portland on Nov. 9 and 10. He will also host a chili cook-off and enter a concoction of his own recipe.

Fans of this spooky genre know Hansen’s alter ego, the intimidating Leatherface from the most famous horror film in history. Hansen also appeared in “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers” with fellow Coast City Comicon guest Linnea Quigley. Following a screening of their film, fans can participate in a Q&A session with Hansen and Quigley.

As part of Hansen’s appearance, he’ll be posing for photos with fans all weekend, and promoting his new book, which gives a compelling retelling of the making of the film and the reception it received in 1974.

“Chain Saw Confidential” is confidently written and engaging. It opens with an overt allusion to “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville, whose own hero was also disconsolate and looking for a sea change.

“Call me Leatherface. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse and nothing particular to interest me otherwise, I thought I would do a little acting and see how movies were made. Even once in a while, when the world gets to be too much and I start to feel a bit spleeny, I feel the need to lift my spirits by killing someone,” the book begins. It goes on to debunk many of the myths surrounding the movie – that it was based on a true story, that the stars made millions, and that someone died during filming.

Hansen, for all the notoriety, did not make much money for his part at the chain saw-wielding maniac who carves up a van full of teenagers and devours them with his crazed family.

“Back then, $10,000 or $15,000 would have meant the world to me,” Hansen said from his home on the coast of Maine last week. The movie’s backers were connected to the Colombo crime family in New York, and even a badass like Leatherface wasn’t going to tangle with them over a contract dispute.

The making of the film was horrific enough. Filmed in the Texan heat that often reached higher than 100 degrees, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was directed by Toby Hooper, who used method acting throughout the filming. He worked overtime to keep the actors in character and, especially, kept those who played victims away from the Chain Saw family, and Leatherface, in particular. Hansen spent many hours alone on the set between shots.

“My feeling was ‘he doesn’t trust his actors if he thinks they need to be genuinely frightened. I felt that was not a very insightful way to approach actors,” said Hansen. He conceded that Alfred Hitchcock had resorted to such measures when filming “The Birds,”

but he thought Hooper went too far in an unnecessary direction.

“When I interviewed for the role, Toby asked me if I was violent, if I was crazy. That concerned me. Does he think I need to be violent or crazy to act this part?” said Hansen, whose family moved from Iceland to Searsport when he was five years old. He subscribed to Looney Tunes comic books as an early way to learn English.

When approached for the film role, Hansen was a college student in Texas, delving into the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

“I tried to write short stories as a kid. In college, I was really interested in poetry, and was poetry editor on a magazine in Austin,” he said. He has published a chapbook of poems called “Bear Dancing on the Hill.” and has forayed into film, working on several documentaries.

“I started out writing them, and then directed and produced them as well,” Hansen said. “Of all of those functions, it was the writing I enjoyed the most.”

For the comic book convention, Hansen gets to get back into his Leatherface character. In addition to posing for pics and signing his new book, Hansen will also host a chili cook-off.

Jarrett Melendez, of Coast City Comics, said, “We’re tired of the conventions that just plop movie stars behind a table and have them sign stuff. We like being able to provide a more intimate experience for fans. They won’t just get herded through a line and shoved away before they can manage a quick ‘Hello.’ They can actually take a minute and talk with idols like Gunnar. Heck, they can even taste food that he made! You don’t get that at national shows like New York Comic Con or San Diego Comic Con.”

“I’ll bring some of my own chili down,” Hansen said. “I’m hoping we can set it up as a blind testing. I’d like to find out if people like my chili. If they don’t, I can always say, ‘Well, they’re not from Texas, so they don’t know chili.’ There aren’t any beans in Texas chili.”

When asked about the secret ingredient in his chili, Hansen said, “The only beans in my chili are human bein’s.”

 

Bloomsday’s Back

By Timothy Gillis

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AIRE Theater is bringing back Bloomsday for Beginners, its celebration of June 16, the day that the action takes place in James Joyce’s much revered but perhaps lesser read master work, “Ulysses.” In one hour, the troupe will take you through the perambulations of Leopold Bloom, the main character and Irish Odysseus who wanders the Dublin streets and pubs and, at for one point, a brothel. It is there that he meets up with Stephen Daedalus, the artist Joyce paints a portrait of in his earlier, more accessible work. Bloom is chaste in the scene, and spends his time trying to sober up Stephen and keep him from the missteps of youth, as if her were his own son, Rudy, who dies as a child. Meanwhile, back at his house, his wife, Molly Bloom, has been the opposite of her “Ulysses” counterpart, Penelope, who kept her suitors at bay, weaving and unweaving.

This marvelous, myriad cast of characters is brought to life through dramatic readings, in full brogue.

The rollicking performance piece was written by AIRE Artistic Director Tony Reilly, using scenes, songs, and lots of humor to explain the story line.

“I had read Ulysses and several other Joyce books, but I wasn’t a fanatic, as I soon learned a lot of people are,” Reilly said this week. “Since that initial production, AIRE and the MIHC have done many Bloomsday celebrations, including readings of the book by local Portland celebrities, pub crawls and readings at local landmarks, such as Monument Square, the Portland Public Library, and local book stores.

The MIHC plans to keep the tribute going with an exhibit of their collection of Joyce’s books, memorabilia, and a showing of the film “The Dead,” John Huston’s final film starring his daughter Anjelica Huston. Many cities in the US such as New York, Buffalo, and San Francisco have their own unique ways of celebrating, and with a blooming literary scene, Portland is throwing in its dented hat.

Last year, the MIHC held a program at their library, buoyed up with help from a Maine Humanities Council grant, featuring a reading of Joyce and other notable Irish authors.

“We’ve added an amazing amount of eclectic gatherings here in the last year,” said Vinny O’Malley, executive director. “And made some movements to encourage non-Irish folks. We want to be active, and have people come here to a real community center.”

Their slogan is “All are welcome,” and they have been working towards expanding their reach. “We’re an Irish center, but we want to make a space for all immigrant groups appearing here in greater Portland,” he said. “Some people can be intimidated by this place. They still think it’s a church. We have had wedding and funerals here; it’s not like some of that is not still going on here. But we’re so much more than that now.”

Last year, the MIHC hosted the 1st annual Welcome the Stranger, a local organization that helps new immigrants with issues surrounding their refugee status and seeking of asylum.

While broadening their scope, the center is still the main repository in town for all things Irish. Situated and steeped in the old neighbor of Tyng and Tate and Danforth Streets, and anchored at its opposite end with the statue of John Ford, the center brags of being the school of the acclaimed Hollywood director who got his education on these streets and at Portland High School when he was still “Bull” Feeney.

The center offers DNA testing and genealogical studies, and since 1994 when the old St. Dominic’s was closed by the Portland diocese and the MIHC was born, Dubliners have been feeling at home there.

“My wife Susan and I came up here to Portland to live in 2003. We had a previous relationship with the MIHC (Maine Irish Heritage Center) and our goal was to establish an Irish theater company, which we did. AIRE (American Irish Repertory Ensemble.   In 2004 members of the MIHC wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of “Bloomsday” — June 16th, 1904, the day the events in the book James Joyce novel Ulysses are set. Everyone had good ideas but they were having a hard to implementing them. I very foolishly stepped up and said that I would put together a theater piece for the occasion.   I sat down and reduced – probably one of the most difficult and important books in the English language – in to a one-hour piece for anyone who has read the book or anyone who never has and doesn’t intend to. It’s silly, fun and fast. And it actually covers the whole book in one hour.

Tony and his wife, Susan, were in a tragic car accident that claimed Susan’s life. Tony’s return to the stage they once shared has been an inspiration to center members, theater fans, and actors everywhere. “We love Tony, and we love that he’s back here,” O’Malley said. His return, though incredibly difficult, has inspired Tony, as well.

“I have to say that Susan was the prime mover and shaker on the Portland Bloomsday activities. Every year, she and a handful of local devotees would work very hard, to make it a fun and memorable event. When I was still in the hospital after the accident that took my wife, I got a call from members of the AIRE board that gingerly said ‘would you maybe consider doing Ulysses for Beginners this year? At the time I immediately said ‘yes,’ even though I don’t even think I was able to walk yet. After the initial yes, I started thinking that I was nuts to do it. But the thought of honoring Susan and her memory was too strong, and it was the best thing I could have done,” Reilly said. “The response that night (June 16, 2015) at the MIHC was overwhelming. ‘Ulysses’ is a funny book that attracts a very strong following. And it’s a very strong part of Irish culture, and that’s what AIRE and MIHC are all about: celebrating and spreading Irish joy.”

 

Bloomsday for Beginners

Friday, June 16, at 7 p.m.

The Maine Irish Heritage Center,

at the corner of State and Gray Streets in Portland

Festive and period attire encouraged. Cash bar.

Artist Brown Lethem in Portland Sunday

"Coyotes," a work in progess by Richard Brown Lethem.JPGBy Timothy Gillis

This interview with Brown Lethem appeared previously. The painter will speak at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland, Maine, on Sunday, June 11.

“I learned to think by watching my father paint,” says Jonathan Lethem, the acclaimed author, in an essay on his dad, Richard Brown Lethem, the 81-year-old avant-garde artist. Father and son have long been inspiring each other.

After his reading at SPACE Gallery a few weeks ago, Lethem looked to the audience for questions, and saw his dad with his hand raised. Brown, sitting next to Andy Verzosa of Aucocisco Galleries, asked his son about his recent time living in Berlin and what European reactions were to his latest book, “Dissident Gardens,” which has just been translated into Spanish. While the author has written much about his dad’s influence on him, the painter says no one asks him how his son has also informed his art.

“It’s worked both ways,” Brown said last week. “His work has influenced me. His interest in science fiction, which I wasn’t into when I was younger, and (Jorge Luis) Borges, and some of the writers I hadn’t read – he turned me on to. They’ve been a big influence.”

The two areas the father and son most overlap is the tendency to never repeat by continually reinventing themselves in their art, and the use of fantasy and imaginary relationships. Brown has always had an interest in the subconscious and the fantasy life and how it influences art, working out of imaginary sources, “and I think that’s been prevalent in his work also,” he said. He’s read all of his son’s books, usually cruising through an advanced copy.

“This last one is so dense I have to go back and read it again,” he said. “His writing has really made me alerted to the environmental crisis. He was on top of that long before it became a meaningful aspect of my thinking.”

Brown works at his Berwick home, in the big barn studio during much of the summer and the stable, a smaller studio that he can heat and work in through the winter. His nickname, Brown, comes from his grandfather’s first name.

“I adopted it a few years back as my real name,” he said. “It seemed earthy and appropriate for a painter.”

During our visit, his cat, Chomsky, made friendly, but Sophie and Whippoorwill, another two, stayed out of sight. Brown was a carpenter for years in Brooklyn, and those skills came in handy when he moved to Maine. The Berwick house is a typical New England cape built in 1846. The barn burned down in 1900 and was rebuilt the following year. When Brown moved in, there was a lot of renovation work to be done on the barn and house, but he didn’t mind the labor. He still spends time in his woodworking shop, which is part of the stable studio.

“Richard Brown Lethem: Figure ↔ Abstraction” is an exhibit at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art that runs though the end of August. The show features many of the paintings he created while living in Maine. A six-foot tall wooden sculpture was done in 1991 while he was artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Maine.

“I’ve always done three-dimensional work,” he said. “The carpentry has influenced my artistic work, assemblages where I use woodworking as a basic form for building.”

Lethem, at 81 years old, still remains flexible with the artistic process.

“I work whenever I feel good, and inspired,” he said. “I try to do something around my studio every day. Sometimes it’s just paperwork, or thinking about the art work, and sometimes it’s a laying on the hands.”

Brown Lethem grew up in the Midwest, in the triangulation of Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa, and spent his summers in “the Divide,” the high prairie land of Willa Cather.

“It’s an interesting part of the county with the character of flat prairie geology that extends into northern Kansas, beautiful buffalo grass,” he said. “It was a little desolate, scary growing up with fire ants and rattle snakes and hand-to-mouth farming, hardscrabble. Many farmers went into debt. I always retained those feelings that Cather talked about, the innocence of sensing death in the landscape.”

He spent most of his first 11 years in a small town in Missouri, half a block from his best friend’s farm.
“Farm animals were a big part of growing up,” he said, then related his early days to his more recent ones. “I come up here, and I’ve gotten back into the country, where the relationship between animals and people are a big part of the subject matter. I have a lot of paintings of horses and riders.”

Lethem’s parents rode horses to school. His dad, Walter Roy Lethem, was a traveling salesman who did well enough to keep six kids through the Depression. His mother, Faye Marie Gifford, also grew up in a rural situation and never lost that love of close proximity to riding horses. Young Richard always had a great ambition to be a painter and got his first set of oil paints from his older sister when he was nine.

“It’s pretty much what I have focused on for 60 years as an adult. I wound up being a carpenter and a teacher by default,” he said.

Lethem brought up his own children – Jonathan, Blake (a graffiti and graphic artist), and Mara Faye (a writer) – in New York in a free-sharing artistic existence.

“We lived in an old brownstone in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. We had a big house. It became a commune with always three or four or more housemates living with us. The kids had a wide-ranging diverse environment, people-wise. There were a couple of guys from Africa, a guy from Okinawa, a couple from Germany – many involved in the arts in one form or another. It was pretty stimulating, a little bit chaotic. The neighborhood was rough, a lot of threatening stuff on a huge street for a kid.”

Brown taught at the Kansas City Art Institute and at Columbia University (his alma mater), as well as the University of Kentucky and the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1994, he became an assistant professor at USM, where he taught for seven years before becoming an adjunct professor, still instructing a couple classes until three years ago.

“I loved teaching at USM. The students were wonderful,” he said. “They came mostly from working backgrounds and were serious about their work. They were cooperative and really worked together. They also had an independent streak that Mainers have growing up in close contact with nature and working situations. They were great. Other than the Kansas City Art Institute, working with USM painting majors was my very best experience.”

The next wave of Maine artists can check out the works of one of the most inspired, at Richard Brown Lethem’s show in Ogunquit.